A Virginia Man Hated People Using His Alley – So He Planned The Perfect Revenge

Image: Adam Fagen

Day and night, John Hollensbury had to put up with the noise of pedestrians and traffic in the alleyway next to his home. What’s more, wheels had gouged deep marks into the walls of the alley as they scraped on by. However, Hollensbury is not alive today. In fact he was dealing with this problem almost 200 years ago – and, by 1830 it seemed as if he was nearing the limits of his patience with the noise and commotion in the street.

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Hollensbury was a city council member and brickmaker. He owned two houses on Queen Street, in Alexandria, a city which faced Washington D.C. across the Potomac. The two buildings sat on either side of an alley. Eventually, Hollensbury decided to take action and silence the irritation for good. And in the process, he would put his street on the map.

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Queen Street lies in Alexandria’s now-historic Old Town, which attracts visitors and locals alike today. The area features museums, boutiques, restaurants, antique dealers and theaters. Over the course of the year, the Old Town also sees various celebrations. These include the Scottish Christmas Walk and parades marking George Washington’s birthday and Saint Patrick’s Day.

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Today, Queen Street itself is home to the narrowest house in America. Its two stories measure just 7 feet across and 25 feet deep – covering a total area of only 325 square feet. The historic, bright blue house was purchased for $135,000 in 1990 by Jack Sammis. In an interview with The New York Times, Jack said, “I used to walk by it every day when I worked near here and when it was listed in the paper, I knew right away what house it was. I bought it the first day it was shown.” And this house had in fact formed an essential part of John Hollensbury’s plan.

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The house was in good condition, but Jack enlisted the help of his friend Matt Hannan to try to return the property to a style more in keeping with its 19th-century origins. And the house comes with some impressive features – the exterior of the building boasts a historic cast-iron shield that indicates the homeowner had paid a local fire service for their assistance in the event of disaster.

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Among Jack’s first alterations to the property was the creation of an outdoor patio. This measures 7 feet by 12 feet – or half the footprint of the house. Jack and his bride, Colleen, actually held their wedding after-party at the property in 2007. On the occasion, they managed to bring 25 guests back to the house with them. “You have to use the garden [when hosting guests],” Jack explained to The New York Times.

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After his work on the patio, Matt set about developing the original features of the house, such as the wooden floors and the exposed brick walls – which feature thick gouges in them. He also set about adding additional elements that fit the period style of the interior.

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Because of its size, the house is economical to run. In fact, Jack told The New York Times that his monthly bills are just $30 for electricity and $22 for gas. And despite its dimensions, the house is by no means impractical.

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Indeed, kitchen facilities include a gas range, a freezer, a refrigerator and a dining table for three. Other, features, meanwhile, include a shower, claw-footed bath and even a queen-size bed overlooking the street below.

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The house is much loved by Jack, as well as by his wife Colleen and his son Jake. The family aren’t shy about showing the house off, and they love the place that it has in the community. “The area loves the house – it’s on napkins and cards that show Old Town scenes,” Jack told The New York Times. “It’s always on the Christmas tour.”

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However, the house has much more to its story. In fact, it’s locally known as the “Spite House.” Indeed, the solution that John Hollensbury found to his problem in 1830 was actually to build this very house between his two properties.

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The property is now a well-known local landmark in the city. Jack’s wife Colleen brought up the moment that she had learned that he owned the building while the couple were dating. “Wait a minute – you own the ‘Spite House?’” she told The New York Times she said.

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A spite house is a building that is constructed with an ulterior motive – generally to impose on neighbors or individuals with an interest in adjoining land or property. Often, they are used to create an obstruction, for example, to block light or access to a nearby building.

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In Hollensbury’s case, he used the building to keep people, and noise, out of the alley and away from his home. Indeed, the building has been described as being more of a closed off alleyway than a real house.

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Hollensbury’s construction is only one example of the many spite houses that exist in the world today. However, as the narrowest house in America, it is one of the most famous. Other spite houses have been built for a wide range of reasons, though.

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One such house was built at 44 Hull Street in Boston’s North End. A pair of brothers inherited a plot of land from their father but, while one was away in the military, the other built a property over most of the site. As revenge, the second brother built a wooden construction on the remainder of the land, blocking the view of the main property and cutting off light.

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The Queen Street spite house, however, only bothered passersby who might once have used the alleyway as a shortcut. Since its construction, the house has become a favorite with the local community – and is often featured in images depicting the Old Town.

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In 2015 the house was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Jack and his son Jake showed off the fittings and features of the property. They took particular care to point out how storage space was tucked away in the hall and the kitchen – proving that there’s a lot to like about the property.

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For Jack, the house is a second home which he generally uses when he’s spending time in the Old Town. His family’s main property is in fact a 3,200 square-foot residence that is a short drive away in North Arlington. Nevertheless, the family enjoy being able to explore Alexandria on foot from their city bolthole.

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And despite owning multiple properties, the smallest of the lot has a special meaning for the family. “I deal with commercial spaces, and this house is so different,” Colleen told The New York Times. “I love the idea of it – that something like this can exist. It makes the world a little more magical.”

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